Oscar Beat: Where Does the Best Actor Race Stand Now?

     November 20, 2015

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When it comes to the Oscar race, the Best Actor race is where it’s at. There’s always a slew of phenomenal leading male performances to sift through, leading to some serious competition when it comes to just whittling it down to five nominees, let alone a winner. This year, however, the Best Actor field is a tad weak. For once, the Best Actress race is the one bursting with talent, and while there are certainly some stellar leading male performances to consider from 2015, the field doesn’t feel near as deep as it has in past years.

Regardless, as we get into the heart of awards season, now seems like a fine time to take a closer look at the race for Best Actor as it stands now. There are a couple of signature performances that seem pretty safe to land nods, but beyond that it becomes much harder to parse out what’s Oscar-worthy.

Are we in for yet another field of familiar faces, or will a newcomer break into the bunch? Let’s take a closer look as I break down the race for Best Actor into a couple of different categories.


The Safe Bets

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Image via Universal

Although the film is suffering a pretty brutal run at the box office, it’s impossible to deny the sheer dedication of Michael Fassbender’s performance as the lead character in Steve Jobs. Instead of attempting to mimic the Apple innovator, Fassbender—and indeed the film as a whole—is more a portrait of the man, opting to portray “Steve Jobs” the character, not necessarily Steve Jobs the person. The result is a tour de force turn from one of our best living performers, made all the more difficult by Aaron Sorkin’s pin-point, symphonic dialogue. Fassbender doesn’t so much deliver this script as he sings it, and however Steve Jobs ends up faring at the box office, I expect the Academy will finally be making up for that Shame snub with a Best Actor nod for Fassbender.

On the flipside, we have a performance that’s all about transformation, albeit one that’s equal parts emotional and physical. Eddie Redmayne’s quiet, sensitive turn as transgender pioneer Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl is a truly stellar turn, and one that very much makes the case for a two-peat after his Best Actor win for Theory of Everything. The film itself hasn’t exactly caught on as well as some predicted, which could somewhat ding his chances when it comes to taking home the prize, but regardless I’d be quite shocked if he didn’t land a nomination.

The Bubble Contenders

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Image via 20th Century Fox

While this year’s Best Actor field is solid, there are decidedly fewer “sure things” than in year’s past. Matt Damon’s turn in The Martian is certainly impressive—he holds much of the screentime alone, and does so with an effortless mix of charm, confidence, and cocksure wit—but is it meaty enough to land a nomination? In other years I’d say no, but the film itself is a bit of a train that can’t be stopped, so if voters fall for The Martian as hard as general audiences did, Damon stands a solid chance of getting in.


There’s also Johnny Depp’s undeniably transformative turn in Black Mass to consider. The film kind of fell by the wayside after a ho-hum critical reception, and while Depp’s performance is really no different that the many other “dress-up” characters he inhabits in more outlandish, less grounded films, it’s a stirring turn with moments of greatness. And Depp’s no stranger to the Academy either, so a nomination is definitely a possibility.

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Image via DreamWorks/Fox 2000

If it’s an old fashioned pick the Oscar voters spring for, Tom Hanks stands a very solid chance at landing a nom for Bridge of Spies. Director Steven Spielberg’s Cold War spy drama is being somewhat underestimated at the moment, but given its formidable box office performance and heavy appeal to the Academy’s older members (and, you know, the fact that the movie is great), it’s a very serious contender in a number of categories, including Best Actor. Nowhere is it more clear that Hanks is our Jimmy Stewart than in Bridge of Spies, in which the two-time winner shines as a good man trying to do the right thing. It’s a story of everyday heroism, and one that Hanks plays to perfection.

And Will Smith is looking to make a triumphant return to serious filmmaking with Concussion. Critical reception to the NFL-targeting picture has been solid though not enthusiastic, but Smith has earned strong notices for his turn as the doctor responsible for discovering CTE, a brutal disease caused by repetitive head trauma that’s most often found in professional football athletes. The question here will be if Smith’s performance can remain relevant as the season gets more loud and crowded throughout December.

The Question Marks

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Image via Warner Bros.

Frankly speaking, most of this year’s contenders are “Question Marks”. It’s an odd field, and there really is an air of “almost anyone could get in”. Could Ian McKellen land a nomination for his turn as the titular detective in Mr. Holmes? Sure. How about Michael Caine in Paolo Sorrentino’s well-received Youth? Definitely a possibility. There’s also increasing talk of Michael B. Jordan for his turn in Creed, which seems poised to be a box office megahit when it opens over the Thanksgiving holiday. If the film explodes like many are predicting, I could easily see Jordan becoming a serious part of the conversation.


There’s also Steve Carell to consider for The Big Short. He landed his first Oscar nomination last year for Foxcatcher, but this time around he does drama with frequent comedy collaborator Adam McKay at the helm. The film was mostly well received at its AFI Fest debut, so if Oscar voters respond in kind, Carell could definitely find himself in the nominations circle.

Bryan Cranston ruled the Emmys for the past few years, but now he’s part of the Oscar conversation for his work in Trumbo. The film itself hasn’t exactly drawn raves, but again given the weak field it’s entirely possible that a performance like this gets in. And despite a mixed critical response, The Weinstein Company is pushing fairly hard for Jake Gyllenhaal in Southpaw, so he remains an outsider contender as well.

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Image via Broad Green Pictures

I’d personally throw my weight behind Andrew Garfield for his stunning performance in 99 Homes, or the young Abraham Attah who commands the screen in Cary Fukunaga’s brutal Beasts of No Nation. There’s also a case to be made for John Cusack’s work as Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy, which is the actor’s best work in years. And although most of the 45 Years conversation revolves around the film’s leading lady, Tom Courtenay is absolutely deserving of a Best Actor nod for his quiet, aloof turn in that devastating relationship drama.

The Unseens

But if you’ve been paying close attention to the Best Actor race at all this year, you know many are holding a slot for perennial bridesmaid Leonardo DiCaprio. The guy has been nominated five times before and is one of our finest actors, and for his next trick, he teams up with reigning Best Director champion Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu in The Revenant. DiCaprio’s performance is said to be a mostly silent one, conveying the trials of his character through physicality rather than dialogue. The film is set to screen imminently, so we’ll have a better idea of DiCaprio’s chances once folks have actually seen the movie, but right now it’s hard to imagine him not at least landing a nomination.


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Image via The Weinstein Company

And I’d be remiss not to mention The Hateful Eight. Writer/director Quentin Tarantino has a knack for drawing out impeccable performances, and the cast for this ensemble Western is absolutely stacked. As of now, it appears that Samuel L. Jackson is the only actor being submitted for lead consideration, and it’s about high time he landed his second Oscar nomination after scoring his first for Pulp Fiction way back when.

So that about does it. Again, while there are definitely impressive performances to be found, this year’s Best Actor bench doesn’t seem near as deep as it has in years past. Is there a surprise contender waiting around the corner, or do we have our field of candidates pretty solidified already? It’s most likely the latter, but a good shakeup could be nice.

For now, I’ve put together a lit of my snapshot Best Actor predictions as it stands now. Again, nothing final, but if I had to choose today, here’s how I foresee the Best Actor nominees filling out (in order of likelihood to be nominated):

  • Michael FassbenderSteve Jobs
  • Leonardo DiCaprioThe Revenant
  • Eddie RedmayneThe Danish Girl
  • Matt DamonThe Martian
  • Tom HanksBridge of Spies

If you missed my rundown of the Best Picture field from last week, click here. And look for my in-depth analysis of the highly exciting Best Actress race over the Thanksgiving holiday.


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Image via Focus Features

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